Mental health is a frequent theme in my academic coaching conversations with students.

Our meetings are typically purposed to talk about their academic goals and progress, but their learning is greatly influenced by their mental wellbeing. They’re often the first to bring up their struggles with mental health as the reasons they feel unmotivated, avoid help-seeking, miss deadlines, or have doubts about their chosen academic pathways.

Students’ awareness of mental health is not surprising. In a 2018 study by the American College Health Association, 63% of undergraduate college students from 40 institutions across the United States reported feeling overwhelming anxiety in the previous year. In the same study, 18% of students reported being diagnosed or treated for depression in the previous year.

In a World Health Organization study published by the American Psychological Association in 2018, 35% of first-year students in the worldwide sample reported having experienced at least one of the most common mental disorders in their lifetime, and 31% reported they experienced these mental disorders within the last year. The symptoms of these mental disorders typically began for participants in middle adolescence, around the ages of 14 or 15. So students in high school are increasingly aware of these emerging concerns with mental health.

Your student likely knows a peer who is struggling with their mental health, even if they are not. This is true now more than ever.

In an April 2020 survey by mental-health advocacy group Active Minds, 80% of college student participants reported the pandemic crisis negatively affected their mental health. One-fifth reported their mental health has significantly worsened. When asked what contributed to their mental health state, this group cited stress or anxiety (91%), disappointment or sadness (81%), loneliness or isolation (80%), financial setback (48%), or relocation (56%). Yet despite these detractors from their wellbeing, 79% of students reported feeling hopeful about achieving their school-related goals and about their future job prospects as well.

This hopeful orientation toward the future not only reflects a resilient mindset but also holds the potential for students to thrive in college as well.

According to the research on college student thriving, students thrive when they maintain a sense of wellbeing through the many transitions of the college years. Thriving students view transitions as opportunities for learning and personal growth. Students are thriving when they remain engaged intellectually, socially, and psychologically as they move from semester to semester, class to class, social interaction to social interaction. Since the start of the pandemic, students have also experienced the transition to varying modalities for learning. Now more than ever, appropriate expectations for the college experience involve adaptability and a mindset of learning and growing amidst transition.

As you discuss with your student what to expect in college, encourage them to expect these three elements of transition.

  • Encourage your student to envision thriving in college as moving through change with a sense of wellbeing, remaining engaged intellectually, socially, and psychologically despite the challenges they may encounter. Help-seeking will be necessary.
  • Encourage them to consider the tools they already have, which they’ve developed in moving through academic and other challenges in high school. Building on past skillsets will be valuable.
  • Encourage them to view transitions as opportunities for growth. Encountering the unexpected with hope will be empowering.

The transitions in the college experience are part of what makes university life a pivotal time of development. My hope for your student, like those I coach, is that they be ready when challenges arise. When students know to expect transitions—even if they don’t know in what form—they can more readily stay engaged when they arise, access their tools garnered over time, and move through the challenge more ready for the next.

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About Jennifer Tharp, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Tharp is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education. Dr. Tharp teaches at the graduate level and consults nationally in the area of student success. Visit Dr. Jennifer Tharp's website.